A Few Good Men at the Pittsburgh Public Theatre

Fantastic performances, powerful writing. 30 years ago when this play had its pre-Broadway tryout at the University of Virginia, I wrote a review for the University Journal. (I just sent an email to the U.Va. library in the hopes of tracking down that review.)

Director Marya Sea Kaminski, who consistently introduces herself as someone who “serves” the Pubic Theater as artistic director, has put together a rousing companion piece to last season’s all-female production of The Tempest.

This nearly all-male production had Carolyn on the edge of her seat. She has three uncles who have served in the military, but I’m sure presence of that much testosterone on stage had something to do with her attentiveness.

During intermission I had to remind her about the Cold War, and the historical context for this story about what happened on a military base in Cuba in the 1980s.

The Pittsburgh Public Theatre’s production of this early Aaron Sorkin work, the basis of the movie starting Tom Cruise and Jack Nicholson, was just thrilling.

I see lots of theater in Pittsburgh, so it’s no surprise to see several familiar faces in the large cast. (Carolyn was just in Twelfth Night with Alison Weisgall, she’s been in several PICT plays with Ken Bolden, she and I have both been in Stage Right shows with Alex Noble, and Carolyn is the self-proclaimed “biggest fan” of Ryan Bergman after she saw him a few years ago in Floyd Collins.)

Alex Noble gets the prize for taking the most passive-aggressive swig from of a bottle of Yoo-Hoo.

In all seriousness, the military precision of the drill choreography, the intensity of the performances, and the power of the writing were amazing. I only saw the movie once, but of course I know how Cruise and Nicholson delivered the “I want the truth” / “You can’t handle the truth!” scene. Actors X an Y are of course obviously playing the characters Sorkin wrote, but they made that exchange their own.

Standing out in my mind are the pathos of Bergman’s portrayal of the doomed Santiago; Weisgall’s confidence and vulnerability (the latter of which is heightened by a creatively-blocked scene in which Kaminski places Weisgall in the witness box, giving her character some emotional closure that might otherwise have gotten lost); the moral panic of Ken Bolden as a doctor whose testimony features strongly in the trial; Noble’s expert sad-sack comic timing; and the almost other-wordly, Book-of-Mormon earnestness of Ryan Patrick Kearney and Michael Patrick Trimm as two young Marines accused of murder, whose extreme loyalty to the Corps compromises their defense.

Doug Harris plays the lead with the boyish glibness the script requires of his character, the Navy defense attorney Kaffee, but without the swagger and mugging I remember from Tom Cruise’s performance. Some of Kaffee’s speeches bear the mark of playwright Sorkin’s growing pains, but after 30 years I think we can safely treat “A Few Good Men” as a period piece, and as such Harris does justice to Sorkin’s early work.

The rhythmic marching and set-changing services from the Marine ensemble, a series of increasingly surprising scenes with Cotter Smith as the honorable and tragically conflicted Capt. Martinson, a hilariously enthusiastic and clueless witness, a surprisingly sympathetic performance by Jason McCune of an over-the-top by-the-Book platoon commander, and creative staging that makes wonderful use of the intimate thrust space, all made this outing well worth the effort.

But what’s a drama without an antagonist?

Burke Moses’s portrayal of Col. Jessup as intelligent, charming, even avuncular at times, with an iron will and unflinching code of honor, perfectly captures the kind of inspiring and charismatic leader we’d want protecting our walls, and also precisely dramatizes the collateral damage from the unavoidable conflict between what works and what is just.